An ad guru rejoins agency life armed with 30 years’ experience.
Alan Tilby has just cracked the creative brief for his 50th birthday
invitation. A collection of old records, cut by some equally ancient
rockers from the Searchers to Sir Cliff - picked up for 60 quid in a
car-boot sale - await dispatch to guests for the September bash.
But if the party at his picturesque Tudor home in Enfield promises to be
an unashamed wallow in 60s nostalgia, Tilby himself is keen to show
that, professionally, he isn’t still playing the same clapped-out
Next month he will begin putting his 30 years’ experience in the
business to the service of Griffin Bacal - an agency with a sound
commercial base and high ambition but with as much creative sexiness as
one of the plastic toy dump trucks made by Hasbro, which dominates its
For someone who has led two of the most high-profile creative
departments in London - at WCRS and the then Boase Massimi Pollitt - the
decision to join Griffin Bacal, ranked 32nd, may seem an odd one.
Indeed, one of his more cynical ex-colleagues describes his agency
selection as ‘the triumph of hope over experience’.
For his part, Tilby claims that the time and circumstances are right.
Big agency creative departments are the places for creative directors in
their mid-30s to cut their teeth, he says. He’s been there and done
What’s more, his upcoming half century - and his 14 months’ rest and
recuperation period away from the business - have not only allowed him
to take stock but bred a determination not to be ground down by internal
agency politics again.
Above all, his self-belief remains high. ‘I’ve no ambition to rush off
and open a restaurant. I know about advertising, so I’ve no option but
to stay in it. I also believe I’m rather good at it.’
Others endorse his immodesty. Dominic Owens, the Prudential’s former
head of advertising and design, recalls Tilby’s press ads as ‘some of
the cleverest I’ve ever seen as a client’, while Amanda Walsh, WCRS’s
one-time managing director, hails him as ‘strong strategically as well
as creatively, a true genius’.
Even Robin Wight, the WCRS chairman, whose relationship with his former
vice-chairman and executive creative director was never comfortable,
acknowledges that ‘Alan has bags of talent’.
Andrew Robertson, previously the WCRS chief executive, remembers a
copywriter of astonishing breadth. ‘He could produce a Carling Black
Label TV script that would make you weep with laughter one moment and
prose for a corporate ad that would move you deeply the next,’ he says.
‘You can’t tramline his style.’
Many believe that Tilby’s choice has been influenced by the overwhelming
need to translate his long and deeply-held views about how agencies
should operate into action. At Griffin Bacal, with no sharply defined
culture of its own, this may prove easier than at WCRS, which has long
mirrored Wight’s powerful personality.
The clincher, however, seems to have been the instant rapport struck
with Paul Hutson, Griffin Bacal’s chairman. Received wisdom says Tilby
can’t function effectively without the right soulmate. He enjoyed a long
association with the art director, Paul Leeves - now executive creative
director of BST-BDDP - even if the professional relationship was
complicated by Leeves’ marriage to Tilby’s ex-wife.
Many former associates are convinced that Tilby’s work has not been the
same since he and Leeves split. They certainly loved the process of
creating ads, so much so that contemporaries at BMP believe the agency’s
creative department was not run as effectively as it might have been
while under their control.
‘He had a very successful relationship with Paul and I think he’s
looking to repeat it,’ a former associate says. ‘Finding someone he
likes working with is tremendously important to him.’
Under Hutson’s tenure, Griffin Bacal has seen a steady growth in its
business, with claimed billings rising from pounds 9.5 million to pounds
30 million in four years.
But the agency is dominated by Hasbro, the raison d’etre for its
establishment in the UK in 1987. It grinds out some 40 commercials a
year for the US toymaker interspersed with only infrequent bursts of
creative potency, notably the double-Dutch poster campaign for
Now, with Griffin Bacal’s new Omnicom parent committed to its growth,
Hutson’s hope is that Tilby’s arrival will - in his words - ‘send a
clear message to the market that we’re serious about creativity’ and
gain the agency entry to pitch-lists for the pounds 3 million to pounds
10 million accounts usually denied it.
‘When I found Alan was available I jumped at the chance to hire him,’
His offer seems to be the antidote to Tilby’s growing frustration in
exile. Barry Smith, the former Publicis creative director turned
creative independent, who has run into Tilby frequently over the past
year, says: ‘Alan enjoyed being away from the agency scene for a while.
But he’s uncomfortable being on the outside looking in.’
Today, the chance to stamp his personality on the agency has set Tilby
alight and he is already talking about how he might fill some of the
gaping holes in its portfolio. ‘But not at a silly pace. I’ve had enough
of all that.’
One matter needing sensitive handling, though, will be managing the
relationship between Tilby and Kent Shively, the agency’s current
creative chief who is highly rated by several of its most important
clients, including Hasbro and Burberrys.
Publicly at least, Shively is upbeat about the new arrangement. ‘My big
problem has always been that I’m not sufficiently well known,’ he
admits. ‘Alan can give us something we’ve lacked in the past and get us
Whether or not this will provide the necessary fulfilment for Tilby, who
once confided to a colleague ‘I’ll never be happy’, is another matter.
Stories abound of his angst and of his troubled and tortured soul, the
legacy, it’s said, of a not entirely happy childhood and a failed first
marriage. ‘Alan will never be happy and he’s accepted the fact,’ a
former agency colleague says.
In the past, his insecurity has manifested itself in apparent indecision
and failure to play to his clear strengths. It was never more obvious
than at WCRS where, according to one former colleague: ‘He joined
wanting to be managing director and left realising he had really wanted
to be creative director all along.’
His problems were compounded by his failure to find much common ground
with Wight. There was little cultural synergy between the Cambridge-
educated army officer’s son and Tilby, the Ilford-born offspring of a
tax official, who forced his way up through the ranks. ‘Alan had a lot
of respect for Robin but never liked him,’ a contemporary says. As a
result, it was often left to Robertson to bridge the gap between the
The situation seems to have fed Tilby’s despair. Some executives thought
him less than brilliant as the manager of a large creative department,
while others recall him having to be prodded out of his silence at
management meetings with Wight.
The appointment of Larry Barker and Rooney Carruthers as joint creative
directors only added to his marginalisation and when Robertson quit to
take on the managing directorship at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, Tilby too
seems to have realised it was time to go. Tilby’s explanation: ‘I was
not prepared to watch things go in a different direction from the one I
thought they should be taking.’
Will Griffin Bacal be the place where Tilby’s experience and talent
achieve their full flowering? Owens, now manager of marketing services
at Mercury Communications, hopes so. ‘I’m amazed it’s taken the industry
so long to grab him back,’ he says. ‘Clients would like to talk to a few
more creatives like him who don’t look as if they’ve just come from a